Sunday, January 17, 2010

Intelligence-resistant columnists

Like most Americans, David Brooks has probably spent all of five minutes in the last decade thinking about Haiti. But like any good imperialist or New York Times columnist -- apologies if I repeat myself -- Brooks is not about to let his ignorance of the country and its people prevent him from drafting a sweeping assessment of Haitian society and the root cause of the nation’s crushing poverty and the widespread devastation wrought by the recent earthquake: Haitian society, of course. Being no Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin, but rather a respectable conservative who no doubt dutifully sends money to his local NPR affiliate come pledge week, Brooks is careful to assure his readers, by way of the obligatory referencing of some other banal establishment political thinker, that he is safely within the mainstream -- he’s just pointing out an uncomfortable truth, is all. While we’re “supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures,” Brooks writes -- and anyone who has ever heard variations of those words from a drunk bar stool pundit can predict what comes next -- some cultures are just “more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.”

Space constraints preventing any discussion of the redeeming values of the Haitian people, Brooks reduces their culture to four attributes he believes caused the Earth’s tectonic plates to shift: “the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile”; “high levels of social mistrust”; “Responsibility is often not internalized”; and “Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.”

Gliding past Haiti’s history of colonialism, economic exploitation and U.S. military occupation with the glib observation that other nations with superficially similar histories are doing okay today, Brooks concludes that it is the culture of Haiti at fault for what may be as many as 100,000 deaths. Since they have shown themselves incapable of improving their lot during the 3 1/2 minutes the U.S. has respected Haiti’s sovereignty in the last 100 years, it is now time to take up the white man’s burden “promote locally led paternalism,” he says, noting “the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism”, which apparently involves repeating corporate P.R. jargon until it means something:
It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.
Unbeknownst to the bespectacled armchair bombardier of the Times U.S. officials have already tried “intrusive paternalism” in Haiti -- during the two decades the U.S. occupied the country, an historical episode that, like U.S. support for the dictators who followed, Brooks never gets to mentioning. But as historian Hans Schmidt writes in his account of the 1915-1934 U.S. occupation of Haiti, undertaken to protect U.S. corporate interests by President Woodrow “sovereignty for white people” Wilson, American military officers themselves instituted a work program intended to goad the lazy, shiftless Haitian people into productivity. “This system, known as corvée, had its historical roots in the unpaid labor which French peasants owed their feudal lords and was strikingly similar to the corvée employed by the British occupation to dredge canals in Egypt in the 1880s and 1890s,” Schmidt notes. Those less prone to nuance might also refer to the system as slavery.

Besides violating the most basic human rights of those it was imposed upon, the system did achieve some successes, including “the construction of an impressive network of roads connecting major towns, with the greatest achievement being a 170-mile unpaved highway between Port-au-Prince and the northern center of Cap Haitien.” And indeed, the program was rigorous, with Admiral H. S. Knapp reporting to his higher-ups back in Washington that it “appears to be undeniable” that Haitians had been forced to work far from their homes and under armed guard, “marched to and from their work bound together.” Foreshadowing Brooks’ suggestion, the system also employed the talents of self-confident local leaders, who headed up some of the corvée labor groups and were known for having “practiced brutality on their charges,” which I guess shows the natives of Haiti are capable of quickly learning from their American betters. I’m guessing this probably isn’t the exact system our newly minted Haitian expert has in mind, though, but perhaps that’s only because he’s not aware of it.


Other things Brooks neglects to mention in his column:

-- Hurricane Katrina, the fact that funding for New Orleans' levies were diverted to pay for occupying Iraq, and what that says about American society

-- The moral and philosophical case for why the very countries that have exploited and brutalized Haiti in the past should be empowered to fundamentally alter its society.

-- And why in particular a country like the U.S. that was the last of the major powers to renounce the notion that a man can own another man -- and which one angry Frenchman observed is a historical peculiarity for passing from barbarism to decadence without ever once knowing civilization -- is entitled to lecture anyone on culture.

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